By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
How safe are your keiki?
As the nation debates whether armed guards are necessary on school premises in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, Hawaii school and police officials are continuing their assessments of security protocols and procedures.
Five Big Island schools currently staff police officers, known as school resource officers, who are authorized to carry a gun on the premises. They are: Hilo Intermediate, Waiakea Intermediate, Honokaa Middle, Konawaena Middle, and Kealakehe Intermediate. A sixth position is vacant but likely to be filled in the coming months at Pahoa Intermediate, said Community Policing Lt. John Briski, with the Hawaii Police Department.
The resource officer program began nationwide in 2003, with federal funding aimed at serving rural school communities, said Mark Behrens, the Hawaii Department of Education’s director of Safety, Security and Emergency Preparedness.
“Initially, there was a federal fund that would pay for county police departments to have police be at a rural school that did not have the quick response times that you would see in a large city. It was restricted to rural neighborhoods,” he said.
Behrens said that the program was so popular that, even when the grant funding dried up several years ago, many Neighbor Island police departments continued to assign officers to be stationed at public schools. Hawaii Police Department is one of those that stuck with the program on their own dime, he said. There are no resource officers on Oahu.
“They kept ones that were in critical areas around the state,” he said. “County police decided to fund it on their own, but they don’t have the resources that the federal government does.”
Behrens said that, as a result of the Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990, only licensed police officers are allowed to carry firearms on school property.
“No gun is allowed in any public school in the country unless it is being carried by an officer,” he said.
That exception does not extend to retired police officers, however, he added — contrary to ideas floated by some in the post-Sandy Hook debate that hiring retired police to carry weapons on campuses might help keep students safer.
“That doesn’t work; If they’re retired, it (carrying a weapon) is not allowed,” he said.
“There are not that many (police officers on campuses in the state),” he said, “but those that do have them, they really appreciate them, because if there’s anything going on that’s criminal, it’s a real big deterrent,” he added.
HPD’s Briski noted that the original intent of the resource officer program included a focus on getting middle-school-aged students to feel comfortable talking to and working with police officers.
“They’re on campus to deal with any criminal activity on campus, but they’re also there to teach classes, such as the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) curriculum, law enforcement counseling to students and the teachers, and to serve as positive role models in the community. They are liaisons between the school and police department,” Briski said.
Esther Kanehailua, principal at Hilo Intermediate, says her school’s resource officer, Bryan Tina, is a great addition to campus, and participates in all manner of activities.
“We’ve had our SRO for the last five or six years,” Kanehailua said. “He really helps our students to create a positive relationship to law enforcement.”
The principal said that students tend to form their opinions of police early on, often based on what they hear at home.
“What they hear there isn’t always the best perception,” she said.
In addition to their educational benefit, Briski added that, in the event of an emergency situation, school resource officers can be an invaluable resource.
“They’re familiar with the surroundings, and the people involved. They have intimate knowledge of the school. These people would be golden to us as far as information goes. That would definitely be a plus,” he said.
Those schools which do not have their own school resource officers usually employ several private security guards, Behrens added.
How many security guards are hired is a decision left up to individual schools and complexes, he said.
“It really depends on each school, and on a lot of factors. … The school’s size. It also depends on the layout of the campus. How open it is to threats. They want to make sure they have a good line of sight visibility. The community’s location. Each school has different needs.”
The majority of schools in the school system go with an average of about four security guards on campus, he said.
Behrens explained that each school’s private security guards are not authorized to carry any type of weapon, including a firearm, nightstick, Taser, or pepper spray.
“Each school district has its own policies. Some schools have plastic handcuffs and Tasers. Our district does no buy into that,” he said.
Rather, the school system prefers to emphasize building relationships with students and the community, so that situations can be dealt with without resorting to physical confrontations.
“We try to put mechanisms in place to decrease the odds of that happening,” he said. “These crazies that come out of the woodwork are very, very hard to prevent. Hawaii’s not like the mainland, with schools that are all fenced in. The Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education both say that meaningful relationships at schools are the best way to prevent typical active-shooter situations.”
Prevention techniques might include requiring reporting of temporary restraining orders, so that security officials know who should and should not be on campus to begin with, he said. Others might include maintaining clear lines of sight and other methods of knowing who is on campus at all times, and clear signage so that visitors know how to report their presence.
While the state is currently considering many options to bolster school safety in light of Sandy Hook, Behrens said that due to budget concerns, the chances of police departments drastically increasing the number of officers provided to schools are pretty slim. But, he said, there is always more that can be done to improve security.
“We’re working with schools and communities. We always want to be improving and evolving. You never want to say you’re ready. That’s dangerous,” he said.
Big Island school officials are expected to discuss security at a meeting on Oahu on Wednesday, according to Hilo-Waiakea Complex Area Superintendent Valerie Takata’s office.
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.